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Henry Grimes, jazz bassist who reclaimed spotlight after 30-year absence, dies at 84 of coronavirus

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This story is part of “ Faces of the dead ,” an ongoing series exploring the lives of Americans who have died from the novel coronavirus.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Henry Grimes was one of the most versatile and admired bass players in jazz. In a single weekend at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, he worked with a who’s who of jazz history and musical styles, from Benny Goodman to Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan and Thelonious Monk.

He went on to become perhaps the leading bass player in the emerging free jazz movement of the 1960s, anchoring ensembles led by pianist Cecil Taylor, saxophonist Albert Ayler and trumpeter Don Cherry. He appeared on more than 50 recordings.

After moving to the West Coast in the 1960s, he simply dropped out of sight. By the 1980s, some writers and reference books said he had died. But in 2002, a jazz-loving Georgia social worker tracked him down in Los Angeles, where he lived in a single-room occupancy hotel and worked as a janitor. He hadn’t played a note of music in more than 30 years.

What followed was one of the most triumphant rediscoveries in music history. A fellow musician sent Mr. Grimes a bass as a gift, and he practiced day and night before he slowly returned to form. He moved to New York in 2003, his musical energy and skills as strong as ever, and became a revered figure in the jazz avant-garde. He performed all over the world, made numerous recordings, taught at conservatories and was hailed as a musical visionary whose time had finally come.

“I never gave up on music, not for a minute,” he told the website For Bass Players Only in 2012. “You could say I was absent for a long time, but I always believed I would be back one day. I just couldn’t see the way to get there, but I knew it would happen.”

Mr. Grimes was 84 when he died April 15 at a nursing facility in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. He had complications related to the coronavirus, said his wife, Margaret Davis Grimes.

As a student in the 1950s at New York’s elite Juilliard School, Mr. Grimes studied classical music and played double bass in an opera orchestra. But he left to concentrate on jazz and soon became one of the most promising young musicians of his time.

He worked with singers Anita O’Day and Annie Ross. Mulligan, the foremost baritone saxophone player of the era, hired him for his band. He played with Rollins and other tenor saxophone masters, including John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Arnett Cobb. He recorded with alto saxophone innovator Lee Konitz, who also died this month of the coronavirus.

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When he was 22, Mr. Grimes appeared with no fewer than six groups at the Newport Jazz Festival, including Mulligan, Rollins, eclectic clarinetist Tony Scott and Goodman, the biggest swing music star of the 1930s. Mr. Grimes — his eyes focused in intense concentration — is briefly glimpsed during his performance with Monk in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” a celebrated documentary film about the Newport Jazz Festival.

“I mean, he was phenomenal,” clarinetist Perry Robinson told NPR in 2003. “He was playing with everybody you could think of, from every genre, you know. It’s amazing.”

During the 1960s, Mr. Grimes gravitated toward jazz’s more adventurous outer edge. When composer and bassist Charles Mingus decided to add a second bass to his group, he called on Mr. Grimes. He collaborated with drummer Roy Haynes and with a fellow Philadelphian, pianist McCoy Tyner.

When Ayler, Cherry and especially Taylor were breaking new ground in jazz, Mr. Grimes was right beside them, inventing complementary lines to balance their freestyle improvisations. His first album as a leader, “The Call,” appeared in 1965.

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In the late 1960s, during a move to California with another musician, Mr. Grimes’s wooden acoustic bass sustained damage from being strapped to the roof of the car. He played several gigs with singers Jon Hendricks and Al Jarreau, but when he couldn’t afford to repair his instrument, he sold it.

Mr. Grimes moved to Los Angeles, was homeless at times and received treatment for bipolar disorder. He eventually found work in construction and as a janitor, living in a subsidized hotel in a seedy part of the city. He spent hours reading and writing poetry and left the world of music behind.

“You just lived day to day,” he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2010. “There was just today; there was no yesterday.”

In 2002, a social worker from Georgia, Marshall Marrotte, painstakingly tracked Mr. Grimes through public records. Bassist William Parker, whose career was deeply influenced by Mr. Grimes, sent him one of his extra basses, nicknamed “Olive Oil” because of its green finish.

Mr. Grimes practiced until the calluses returned to his fingers, and slowly began to appear in Los Angeles clubs and schools. When he reappeared in New York in 2003, performing at a festival of the avant-garde, he was hailed as a hero returned from the wilderness.

“It was moderately difficult to come back into the music world,” Mr. Grimes told the Jerusalem Post in 2012. “Not because somebody was making it hard for me but because that’s just the way it is. If you’re ‘avant-garde’ and don’t just stick to the ordinary, some doors do slam instead of opening. But I’ve had some great people helping me along the way back.”

Henry Alonzo Grimes was born Nov. 3, 1935, in Philadelphia. Both parents had been musicians in their youth but worked in restaurants during Mr. Grimes’s childhood.

His first instrument was the violin, and he also learned the tuba, English horn and percussion instruments before taking up the bass at Jules E. Mastbaum High School, which has produced many outstanding musicians.

Mr. Grimes worked with blues musicians and young Philadelphia jazz artists, such as trumpeter Lee Morgan and pianist Bobby Timmons before studying at the Juilliard School in New York, where he was mentored by a member of the New York Philharmonic.

During his 15-year comeback phase, Mr. Grimes performed in nearly 700 concerts and led classes at colleges and jazz conservatories around the world. He reunited with Taylor and worked with dozens of acclaimed musicians, including saxophonists Joe Lovano, Fred Anderson and Roscoe Mitchell, pianist Marilyn Crispell and trombonist Roswell Rudd.

“He’s got a really deep sound, from the very bottom of the bass,” saxophonist Jane Bunnett told the Toronto Star in 2010. “He swings like crazy, but he’s also incredibly intense for a man of his age. His stamina is incredible. After 35 years off the scene, he’s come back with incredible vengeance and intensity, making up for lost time.”

At age 70, Mr. Grimes occasionally began to play his first instrument, the violin, in concerts and recite his poetry. He appeared on numerous recordings, including two with guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Luis Perdomo’s “Awareness” (2006) and two duet albums with drummer Rashied Ali, “Going to the Ritual” (2008) and “Spirits Aloft” (2010). He recorded several albums as a leader, including “Solo” (2009), and published a volume of poetry. He gave his final performance in 2018, when he was beginning to suffer the effects of Parkinson’s disease.

Survivors include his wife since 2007, Margaret Davis Grimes, who was also his manager.

In 2003, when he was returning to music after three decades, Mr. Grimes was asked to recall his memorable performances and recordings from years past.

“It’s a strange thing. Like an effect of battle,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Listening to these records I made with all these guys, I couldn’t remember the place or how I got there playing. But I remember every note of the music. I mean every note.”

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